Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, "Some Velvet Morning" (Track of the Week)

There's probably no more depressing time of year than late January. It's as cold as it will get, the days are still too short, the holidays are long past and the end of winter is still a long way off. In the time of COVID January also means sickness and death. 

This January is not as deadly as the last but the embers of hope stirring then are almost burned out. January 6th was a horrible shock, but the 20th brought an end to the Trump presidency. A year later the hopes I had on that day are pretty much dead. Republicans have not paid any political price for trying to overthrow democracy. Democrats are unable to pass legislation because two of their own Senators refuse to suspend the filibuster. This year will likely bring Republican control of Congress, and an end to any possible hope for the new birth of freedom this country desperately needs. 

I walk about my days this January with premonitions of doom and rumors of war in Eastern Europe. This country's death spiral has not been averted in any perceptible way. I don't really think there's much of a future for America. 

Apart from going to work every day and spending time with family and friends, I am not sure what else to do. I try to find solace as always in music. I have found that lush 1960s baroque pop soothes me like little else. I got introduced to this genre through the early Bee Gees, and last winter listened to Scott Walker non-stop. This year it's Lee Hazlewood. 

"Some Velvet Morning" with Nancy Sinatra has the doomy, ethereal sound of my soul at this particular moment in its grooves. Hazlewood doesn't really sing. He sort of intones in a deep voice while Nancy does ghostly background vocals. I am not sure what this song is even supposed to be about, but in it I hear the sounds of the crisis of the soul. God knows it's a resonant feeling with me right now. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading War and Peace in the Time of COVID

This Charlie Brown special was how I first learned of Tolstoy

When quarantine began in the middle of March, 2020, I decided to order a couple of long nineteenth century novels I had been meaning to read for years. I love those old classic doorstops, which considering their serialized nature are like literary versions of a Netflix series. The more characters, the more side plots, the more philosophizing, the better. The two novels in question were Middlemarch and War and Peace. I started on the former and got over two hundred pages in, mostly because the start of quarantine coincided with my spring break. Then came the transition to fully remote teaching, which was so taxing and brutal that I could not spare the mental capacity for Middlemarch.

Months later, in the summer of 2020, I dug out War and Peace from my bedside book stack, and couldn't get into it. The same thing happened the next summer. It begins in the world of noble salons and drawing rooms, not exactly the most engrossing thing for me.

Fast forward to last week. My wife gave me a bunch of great books for Christmas, including Ruth Scurr's recent book about Napoleon telling his life through his experience with gardens (trust me, it really works!) I got into a serious Napoleonic mood after reading it, and the only relevant book readily available to me was Tolstoy's tome. 

This time it clicked with me, and after three days I am 150 pages in, despite my tired old eyes straining to read the small print of the footnotes whenever the French dialogue is being translated. This was partly because my mind was in the right Napoleonic frame to appreciate the world Tolstoy was recreating. However, it was mostly because I saw a connection between that once foreign salon world and myself.

As the two year anniversary of quarantine approaches, I have been getting extremely vivid flashbacks to the earlier days of the pandemic. I am especially remembering its strange mesh of emotions. I was scared and mentally dislocated, but I was also optimistic and energized by the challenge ahead. I had no clue, of course, what really laid in store for me. I had no conception that the pandemic would still be affecting my life two years later, one year post vaccine. 

That's what Tolstoy is showing us with the salons and all their partying and gossip as war with Napoleon commences. The characters are preparing themselves for something they think is important, but they have no way of understanding just how momentous and life-altering the coming changes will be. They can only talk about it in the abstract before the brutal reality smacks them in the face. It feels good to dip into the past and find people like me being tossed on the waves of history desperately looking for a lifeboat. 

It's a shame that the epic social novel is a relic of the nineteenth century. I sometimes feel like the United States of the past six years would be great fodder for such a thing. While I know the present will always soon be the past, the recent years have felt more like living through history than any time in my life, including during the end of the Cold War and the years of the War on Terror. All that is solid melts into air nowadays, as a wise man of the nineteenth century once said. I increasingly feel like my individual will has zero bearing on my fate in a world being shaken by forces well beyond my control. Reading a masterful epic novel of the past makes those feelings more bearable. Maybe I will get to Middlemarch, too.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Read More Novels

I was lucky to get a whole bunch of great books from my wife for Christmas this year, including the novel The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Now I might be partial to it considering that a lot of the early parts take place in the corner of Nebraska where I grew up, and a lot of the rest of it takes place in the city where I work (New York), and in between there's life on the road, which is one of my favorite places to be. Even taking away those ingrained advantages, the book completely entranced me. I loved the multiple perspectives, the characters, and how it held me in suspense. Reading the book on the way to and from work on the train became a highlight of my day. Now that I am done with it, I feel an actual loss in my life, a hole in need of filling.

During the week and a half when I was reading the book I tried and failed to watch American prestige television. A really good novel truly CONSUMES me like nothing else, it dominates my thoughts in the day's idle moments. By comparison prestige TV felt far less vital, far less interesting, and far more formulaic. I tended to know which way things were going on the TV when The Lincoln Highway surprised me in every chapter. The characters felt two-dimensional, and I could never truly put myself in their heads. The beats and formulas of prestige television in the US are pretty well established. The thing is, if I want formula I would much rather read a spy novel or watch an old episode of The Rockford Files

Neither of those things pretend to be something that they aren't. They also do far less to waste my time. After an hour of The Rockford Files everything has been nicely resolved. The prestige TV format typically includes episodes that fill time and do little to drive the plot forward or even develop the characters. I have so little time in my day, and hearing someone say "you have to watch the first few episodes before it gets good" is the surest way to never get me to watch something. 

I should also add that this is a problem with American TV in particular. While I was reading the novel my wife and I watched the Swedish show Anxious People on Netflix, and I really enjoyed it. It was only six episodes and the first one left such a strong impact I definitely wanted more. It's also a show about LIFE, a topic one tends to find much more in literature than in American prestige television, which relies on some kind of high concept, even for the good shows. A mob boss who goes to therapy. A serial killer hunting serial killers. A chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. And so on and so on and so on. Yawn.

Not that I won't pick up a new show to watch. We just started Station Eleven, for example, and I like it a lot. It has even forced me to reckon with the losses of the pandemic in ways I tend to place out of my mind. At the same time, the story is taking forever to unfold and a lot of the beats feel overly familiar. 

There's another thing too: The Discourse. The Discourse has warped viewership of prestige TV to the point that I can't watch anything without feeling like it's been talked to death already. My expectations are too fully formed by the time I put on the first episode. Novel reading is not something beloved by the people participating in The Discourse, thank God. I can read a novel without thinking that reaction to it is taking some kind of side. Even better, it's something I don't talk about online with strangers, it's something I share with my friends. And let me tell you, they are far more fruitful conversations to be had with the latter group.  

So while I am enjoying Station Eleven, what I really want is a new novel, one as good as the last few that I've read. Something to consume me. Goodness knows I need it right now. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

New Order, "Procession" (Track of the Week)

Up until this week we have not had much of a winter here in New Jersey. The unseasonable warmth did not lift my spirits much because it only reminded me of climate change's harsh reality. This week's ice and freezing cold are thus ironically comforting.

As I often to admit on this blog, my music listening habits are extremely seasonal in nature. Just as the holidays give us comfort in their regularity and ritual, my soul demands that I listen to New Order in the dead of winter, especially their early singles and albums. The frosty synths, whispy melodica, and strangely melodic bass seem perfect for these bitter weeks of cold darkness. December is the bearable winter month because of all the holiday fun. Then comes January, with nothing to look forward to that isn't a long way away, with weeks of freezing purgatory to cross to get there.

"Procession" sets the tone right away with its layered synthesizers before Stephen Morris' famously spare drumming kicks things into gear. The first words are "There is no end to this," which is how winter can feel at this time of the year. The music's vibe reminds me of driving the back roads of Nebraska during a snowstorm, the flakes like the notes swirling about reflecting light and beauty. But like trying to drive in the snow on a rural road, there's a note of danger beneath it all. One wrong move and things can go off of the road and into the ditch. I must admit I have careened off of the road this time of year a few times in my life, both metaphorically and literally. 

In the midst of our second COVID winter my fight is gone. Instead of worrying I am just trying to embrace the things that give me comfort. This song is one of them. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Fear is the Mind Killer (A 1/6 Reflection)

I didn't get a chance to watch many movies in 2021, but one of them was Dune. I thought it was a great adaptation, and a timely one. As the famous line from the book goes, "fear is the mind-killer." By the time I saw the film in the fall, several months after January 6, it hit hard. 

In the immediate aftermath of the attack it seemed like the growth of fascism in America could no longer be denied. Here an armed mob, complete with Nazi gear and Confederate flags, tried to overthrow a democratic election with the assistance of the sitting president and several members of his party. Even after the smoke cleared a majority of House Republicans voted against certifying the election. Despite this, a lot of people who had stayed aloof finally took a side. Twitter banned Trump, for example. MLB players refused to have the All-Star Game in Georgia, which was restricting the right to vote.

This spirit did not last long. By springtime the media, centrists, and a lot of squishy liberals decided it was time to just get back to "normal." The Republicans who had openly declared their support for a coup went back to being treated as just regular politicians. In the minds of most voters the Republicans returned to being, in their minds, a center-right opposition party, not a vehicle for an extremist movement. Never mind that on the state level they were banning the teaching of the country's actual history and destroying reproduction rights. They even did well in the off year election, picking up a governor's seat in Virginia. It was as if nothing had happened.

In the meantime Congress failed to pass voting rights legislation, aided and abetted by Sinema and Manchin, supposed Democrats. Seeing democracy being threatened and the ostensible opponents of the wreckers refusing to do anything about it certainly raised my fear levels. At that point the voices of doom from the left resounded on Twitter, everyone trying to prove how smart they were by saying fascism was inevitable. Confused and fearful, the people who should be fighting the fascists have been in hiding.

Fear is indeed the mind killer.

It's time to start shaking this paralyzing fear. A year ago today on 1/6, before the mob stormed the Capitol, Warnock and Ossoff were confirmed as the winners in Georgia. That only happened because of the grassroots efforts to get out the vote and democratically alter what looked to be a set "red state" reality. That's the spirit I want to remember today. 

Bullies know they get the upper hand once their victims are afraid of them. At that point the bully gets to do whatever the hell they want. What ultimately breaks this dynamic is the victim showing that they won't put up with this shit anymore. I am sick and tired of the doom and defeatism. Nothing good comes from it. I will be damned if my children grow up in a fascist future. This 1/6 I am recommitting myself to fighting the fight, to not shy away from conflict but to relish it, and above all to not be afraid. There's no guaranteed victory, but nothing in life is guaranteed, especially if you give up.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Best of the Blog 2021


Another shitty year is ending in another COVID winter but that doesn't mean I can't engage in some flagrant navel gazing. Here's the best stuff I managed to write in this awful year. 

I am probably proudest of this examination of mall culture and why we long for it that I published over at Tropics of Meta.

This summer I listened to and reviewed every single Bob Dylan album. The link takes you to all the revalent posts. 

A peak into my current research project. 

This has got to be my favorite of things I've written trying to get at the lived culture of neoliberalism. Also a nostalgia bomb for your Gen Xers out there.

On how the failed revolutions of 2020 mirror the failed revolutions of 1848. Welcome to the violent restoration, folks. 

Both the book and the film are interesting to think about as commentaries on how history moves.

My reflection on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

On why Americans don't even want to solve the pandemic or other problems as long as the supply of cheap shit keeps flowing.

I am pretty proud of this analysis of the US Senate and its role in our dysfunctional political system. 

I am one of the few to have nostalgia for this weird time because it coincided with my personal prime. 

On how political progressives have checked out, and the consequences of that.

I wrote this in the aftermath of 1/6, seeing in plenty of conservatives similar behavior to Germans willing to overlook some things back in 1933.

My Rush Limbaugh obit.

Dig deeper and you will find that the master of 80s schmaltz makes for uneasy listening.

I wrote a few dispatches from the teaching front last year but this one came right as morale was about to break.

Old Grandad when I'm hard up, Old Fitzgerald when my pockets are full.

Commentary on maybe the most stimulating book I read last year. 

I've been trying to sound the alarm about this conflict for some time now.

On how watching old episode of this show kept me sane.

A trip upstate with my parents back in June revealed a lot about where the country was headed.

Some sad thoughts on my spiritual estrangement from the land of my birth. 

On the movie that helped me reconnect with my love of teaching right before the school year started.

Getting back into philosophy in the pandemic has been a great help for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Quarantine Christmas

Today was the first Christmas day I have ever spent at home with only members of my own household. Even when I spent a year living abroad in Germany I trekked to my mom's cousin's house a couple of hours away. This wasn't by choice, of course. My daughters testing positive and the general omicron surge meant my parents were not able to fly our here as planned, and quarantine meant we could not be with my wife's parents. (We will get to see them in a couple of days.)

I've been fortunate to not catch COVID from my kids, and that they've pretty much been asymptomatic. This Christmas has been a kind of throwback to the early days of the pandemic, when everything was put on hold and the world outside of the four walls of my home seemed to disappear. Then as now this meant more time with my children, which I cherish. The demands of my job often make it difficult to get any quality time with them in the normal run of things. 

Christmas is a time of reflection, which is the kind of thing that can bring on the holiday blues. That's been particularly intense this year as I have been unable to celebrate it with my parents. That in itself is a reminder of how much has been lost over the last two years, and I've even been one of the the lucky ones. Friends of friends and relatives of friends have died from COVID but so far no one directly connected to me has (touches wood.) Nevertheless, I have missed out on a lot of time with my parents and sisters, and that weighs on me.

The Christmas reflection gets more intense from me as a teacher, since going from ten hour days of intense work to two weeks of break gives me whiplash. I get too much time to think, too much time to contemplate the scary state of the world today, too much time to get depressed. I read a recent medieval history at the start of break, and one of my takeaways is that I now get why people like St. Benedict just went out into the desert to live as isolated monks. Maybe this broken world just cannot be fixed. Christmas is the ultimate promise that somehow, some way the world can be set right, but I am not feeling that spirit this year.

Of course, I can't just quit everything, put on a brown robe, and move to the desert. It's not feasible, and more importantly, I don't really want to. Quarantine Christmas has reminded me that everything I need is right here in front of me. I will draw from it as much as I can in the coming months, since it's the only thing that gives me any kind of faith in the future.